PEACOCK EFFECT: dressing to attract attention

When I was a kid my father used to take us to the home of a colleague of his who had peacocks (and peahens) wandering his back yard.  I remember the first time we went and how unimpressed I was with these rather bland birds pecking at the ground.

Then one of them spotted us watching him and an explosion of color flew up from his body as he unfolded the magnificent tail feathers only a peacock can display.  It was awesome…and unforgettable.

We are told that peacocks (and other colorful birds) display their finery to attract the attention of peahens and entice them to mate.  The peahens have an eye for beauty and usually respond heartily.

In the human world it has been a reverse tradition.  The idea of dressing with color and style to attract the opposite gender’s attention has been left to the women.  At least that was the perception for the decades of the early twentieth century.  Like old photographs, life was pretty grey, given devastating wars, the Great Depression,  and a kind of Victorian mentality that reigned throughout much of America.  If you look at photos of that period in time, men (for the most part) were dressed in drab colors, less than imaginative design, and a more functional style of couture.  It was the woman’s role to display color, scent, design, and fabric which was eye-catching.

That factor isn’t true for all men and women.   Women employed in industry, teaching, and office settings tended to dress conservatively.  Economics may have had something to do with it.  But it was also the time of the flappers who introduced a sexier, more colorful and more unconventional style of dress.   And some men were dapper, with bright colored sweaters, jackets and ties.  Straw hats replaced felt fedoras.  Bright colored slacks and multicolored shoes were common in social settings.   So there were exceptions.

But it is in the late twentieth century and the twenty-first that we have seen an explosion of color and style come to the male realm of fashion.   The fashion section of the New York Times features androgynous styles for men which are flamboyant, sometimes edging up to the absurd.  Clearly a more metropolitan style of dress for men, it is not so much “the norm,” although there is a trickle-down effect as men’s clothing, even in small town America, tends to be lighter, brighter and with an emphasis on style over function.

The necktie is fast becoming archaic.  Greys and blacks have been accented with colorful shirts, which … even in the work place … have replaced the white shirt and tie with open collars and brighter colors.

The idea of peacock effect is far from being universal, but I don’t have to go to New York City to see a transition which is dramatic and eye-catching.   It isn’t totally generational, either.   Bill Cunningham, the fashion photographer for the New York Times might not find the clientele of my favorite bakery enticing for his Sunday columns, but if he spent a few hours in Providence he wouldn’t be disappointed by the  transitional fashion style he would find locally.   Among university, business, and the arts in this city he would find trend-leaders who have embraced the peacock effect ranging from subtle to flamboyant.  It is no longer a major metropolitan phenomenon.


Photo Credit:  Men’s Fashion

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